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The Honolulu Advertiser
Updated at 2:02 p.m., Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Kline shines in 'Cyrano' on PBS tonight at 8 p.m.

By Mike Hughes
TV America

Kevin Kline was doing two things we hadn't expected smoking and talking about small-town America.

The cigarette was a surprise, because of the huge, athletic feats he sometimes performs. That peaked with the title role in "Cyrano de Bergerac," on Broadway and now on PBS.

Cyrano spills out huge paragraphs, filled with fancy phrases. "He is not a man of few words," said Kline, 61. "He is articulate, frequently witty. (There are) a lot of words."

Those words are often said while racing around, slashing his sword. "He's quite a swashbuckler," David Horn, producer of the "Great Performances" series that is showing "Cyrano," said of Kline.

And the small-town America part? Well, Kline is often associated with metropolitan life.

He's been in at least 18 Broadway shows, including Shaw, Moliere, Chekhov (twice) and Shakespeare (four times). He's married to a movie star (Phoebe Cates). He has two Tony awards for musicals and an Academy Award for "A Fish Called Wanda"; he also has a father-in-law (Gil Cates) who has produced 14 Oscar ceremonies.

This is a guy entwined in New York culture. Still, he grew up in the middle of the country (St. Louis), went to Indiana University and spent time touring America.

That was when he was with The Acting Company, a John Houseman project that took theater on one-night stands throughout America. Kline recalls playing such towns as Owosso, Mich.

"We always preferred the audiences there," he said. "There was a hunger ... They weren't jaded or blase."

That's what PBS is trying to find now, bringing performances to places that feel a million miles from Broadway:

-- The former "Masterpiece Theatre" has been re-invigorated. It concludes "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" on Sunday, follows with "Wuthering Heights" on Jan. 18 and 25, then has a Dickens spree.

-- "Great Performances" is tackling a few large projects -- "Cyrano" tonight, King Lear (with Ian McKellen) on March 25, a concert version of "Chess" this summer.

Pulling this off is difficult, Horn said. "You really need stars of the caliber of Kevin, who are willing to basically take a huge pay cut."

For Kline, the idea of being a stage star was a surprise. He grew up seeing a little theater and a lot of concerts; he was a classical pianist who was also considered a good singer.

He began to doubt that last part after he got to Indiana's prestigious music school. "It was interesting to see what great singers were like."

He studied voice with former opera star Martha Lipton, then joined The Acting Company, which Houseman organized at the Juilliard School in New York. "Both of my mentors were, at first, incredibly impressive, powerful figures who instilled fear."

They also instilled talent and stage discipline. They crafted the sort of actor who can -- even as a smoker in his 60s -- proclaim and swashbuckle with great vigor.